Tag Archives: Ignatius of Loyola

Active imagination can deepen your life: A four step process

L’atmosphère Météorologie by Camille Flammarion, ca. 1888

Most of us could use a tool (or twelve) to deepen our spiritual awareness. What I mean by “spiritual awareness” is the ability we all have to experience the Spirit of God. If you don’t relate to God personally, then I mean your ability to experience the “numinous,” the outside-my-understanding events that stay with us throughout our lives, even after we’ve tried to explain them away. You may have been ordered to repress or deny that capacity for a variety of reasons. For instance, one genius-of-a-friend reported for med school at Jefferson U. and was quickly told his faith had no place in the upper realms of research for which he was headed. The order to squash his spiritual awareness was direct and not implied! You may have been squashed too!

So most of us could use a tool to help us deepen our spiritual awareness. We’ve all got it, but we have a lot of reasons we have not been using it. Active imagination is such a tool (much like dream work last week). The idea is fairly easy to understand, since it relates to the fantasies that regularly run through our head. We may entertain or dismiss our fantasies, but most of us rarely take their energy seriously, try to harness it, or learn from that common experience of what is going on inside.

According to Robert A Johns in Inner Work:

Active imagination is a dialogue that you enter into with the different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious. In some ways it is similar to dreaming, except that you are fully awake and conscious during the experience. This, in fact, is what gives this technique its distinctive quality. Instead of going into a dream, you go into your imagination while you are awake. You allow images to rise up out of the unconscious, and they come to on the level of imagination just as they would come to you if you were asleep.

Active imagination is a common experience in the Bible

Before you Christians get nervous about being self-centered and lost in a perpetual search for elusive meanings in your inner world, let me remind you that people with the most active of imaginations wrote the Bible. At least that is what Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) told Krista Tippet that time during On Being. If you cannot ponder metaphor, or cannot see yourself in the Bible, or cannot imagine how the Spirit of God is relating to the part of you that is also beyond your ordinary awareness, you might be religious but you’ll be a dissatisfied Jesus follower. Our imagination is a beautiful part of us and is a doorway into the deep realms of the Spirit into which God calls us in Jesus. And let’s not forget God calls all sort of people who don’t know Jesus, too, who begin their journey by knowing their own capacity to be aware of spiritual things.

And before I get to my very-abridged summary of Johnson’s steps to practicing active imagination in service to our growth, let me add a couple of warnings. On the one hand, most of us will probably have a tough time getting the process of active imagination going. We’ve been “ordered” to repress it, after all, by secular and religious authorities. It may take some experimenting. On the other hand, and this is a real warning, some of us might go too far, get lost in the realm of purposeless fantasy and have trouble getting back to the here and now. If you suspect that is likely to be you, enter into the process holding the hand of Jesus and definitely holding the hand of a therapist or friend who can bring you back if you get lost. I compare this necessity to the rope people tied to the high priest when he went into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple so they could pull him out if he got lost somehow, or died. The legend of that practice is not true; there is no evidence people really did that. But you get the idea. Active imagination needs to stay tethered to an real-time purpose, or it is something else.

Many of us are familiar with Ignatius of Loyola and his teaching on entering the Bible story as an active participant, especially when it comes to records about Jesus. Active imagination is a similar kind of exercise, only the context is not outside us but in us. We are entering into the interesting interchanges happening within us, walking and talking with the persons we find in our unconscious, confronting and arguing, making friends and probably fighting. We consciously participate in the drama of our imagination. You can see this is not passive fantasy, like worrying, or like repeating negative messages. We are acting as that observing and relating “I” we all are, getting to know all the territory of our unconscious, and so deepening communication among all the parts of us.

Four steps

Robert A. Johnson has some fascinating examples of active imagination in his book. They are all examples of personifying some content from the unconscious that arises to the surface, putting it into image form so one can dialogue and deal with it. For instance, when you have stomped off from a heated argument and sit sulking somewhere, you might turn to the anger, which likely comes from someplace deep, and ask it who it is. You might find some lonely child, or some power-hungry tyrant, or some confused priest. You wouldn’t judge them before you got to know them, just see who is there and honor their right to be you.

Here are the four steps. Like when we were talking about dreams, the explanations are abbreviated, but I hope they whet your appetite and give you and idea of what you might try. You might even read Johnson’s book.

Step One: Invite the unconscious

Invite the inner persons to start the dialogue. Take your mind off the external world and focus on your imagination and wait to see who shows up. When you let yourself rest in Christ, you might find yourself in what I call my “inner landscape” where my encounters often take place. Be patient and stay alert. If something comes up, don’t judge, just go with it. If it feels productive, hang with it. If it is just a fantasy, or you are not ready for it, move on.

Step Two: The dialogue

A helpful dialogue with personified images from your unconscious is very much like a healthy conversation with anyone. You demonstrate a willingness to listen and actively do that. This is best done with a journal. As I was in the process of writing this post I had a very useful time of active imagination in which I managed to turn into a feeling, ask who it was and listen. But when I went back to it this morning, it was a hazy memory. Writing out the main things being said and experienced helps to make the most of the process.

Sometimes we’ll have an argument and that might be when we are really getting somewhere. However it works out, a problem will be revealed, different viewpoints will be noted and a response of some kind will come. This could take a few minutes or days or even years.

Step Three: The Values

This step is important for everyone and especially for Jesus followers who are no longer alone and usurping God’s place. Johnson says:

Once the imaginative process is launched, once the primordial forces are invited to come up to the surface and be heard, some limits have to be set. It is the conscious ego, guided by a sense of ethics, that must set limits in order to protect the imaginative process from becoming inhuman or destructive or going off into extremes. (Inner Work)

Hold out for what is good. Don’t let one energy take over at the expense of the others. Nurture what serves human life, practical needs and healthy relationships. Do it all in Christ.

Step Four: The Rituals

We always want to incarnate our active imagination so it gets out of the abstract and gets connected to the earthbound. When we have an insight or a resolution, we do something to make it concrete. My active imagination often makes me feel better, but it is best when I do better. Remember not to act out some fantasy or project some inner conflict on someone else. We’re talking about integrating the essence, the meaning, the principle we have derived into our practical life.

I hope this brief intro (or reminder) encourages you to do some inner work this week. The world needs deep people. Plus, this activity is great for times of stress and confusion. We can gain a lot of confidence for what we need to do on the outside when we are in less turmoil inside.

Opposition: The Bully, The False Lover, The Shrewd Army Commander

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)

I had a spiritual director once who was trained in the “Ignation School” of spirituality. Our relationship was a nice experience for me. He was a chemist, by education, and brought much of the personality and expertise of his field with him into our relationship. Being almost the opposite of a chemist, in training and typical personality type, I benefited greatly.

At one point, he told me about the three ways I could be tempted, according to Ignatius, and asked me to decide which way I was being tempted in the moment. I have never forgotten the imagery. Here are the thoughts from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola paraphrased by David Fleming. I thought you might like to examine yourself to see how you are likely to be opposed this week. According to Ignatius three are Three Ways the Enemy Works:

Like a Bully

The enemy behaves like a bully who is a weakling before strength, but a tyrant before weakness. It would be characteristic of a bully to lose courage and take flight when confronted with someone who is determined and strong of will. However, if a person loses courage and begins to flee, the anger, vindictiveness, and rage of the bully will surge up and know no bounds.  In the same way the enemy becomes weak, loses courage, and turns to flight as soon as the one leading a spiritual life faces their temptations boldly. (SE 325)

I have been very encouraged this week by dear friends who have had the courage to face “the bully” in whatever guise he was taking. They make me remember the recurring dream I had for several weeks, long ago now, in which a “monster” was chasing me. Gwen suggested I prepare to turn and face it that night rather than dreading to run away from it in my dreams. I decided to do it, and in my dream I did it. The result was exactly as Ignatius said. I proved it had no power over me.

Like a False Lover

The Enemy’s behavior can also be compared to that of a false lover.  One who loves falsely uses another for selfish gains, and so people become objects at one’s disposal or like playthings for entertainment or good times.  A false lover usually suggests that the so-called intimacy of relationship be kept secret because of fear that such duplicity will be made known.  So does the Enemy often act in ways to keep temptations secret, and our tactics must be to bring our temptations out into the light of day to someone like our director, confessor or some other spiritual companion. (SE 326)

I regularly hear about the literal “false lovers” who lock people up. Porn is the undiscussed  false lover for any people. Many people have connected with a person who doesn’t love Jesus and that relationship is a secret love. Some people have many secrets about how they have satisfied their lust and pretended they didn’t to their intimates. Sex it a spiritual matter. Although many people are resolute in pretending otherwise, there are probably no inconsequential couplings or orgasms.

But our loves are not all sexual. We have many lovers who use us and leave us kicked to the curb. We trust our employers or addictions or abusers, even when they don’t love us like Jesus. We trust our false selves in all their delusions and bad heart-habits, even when they have repeatedly been proven self-destructive.

The solution is dialogue. We shouldn’t wait for our expectations of trustworthiness to be fully satisfied before we talk about our lovers. They are much less powerful in the light. Just because they fear the light, and they tell us that being secret is better, and they warn us of the terrible consequences of living in the light, that doesn’t mean they aren’t lying.

Like a Shrewd Army Commander

The Enemy can also work like a shrewd army commander who carefully maps out the tactics of the attack at the weakest point of defense.  The military leader knows the weakness is found in two ways:  a) the weakness of fragility and unpreparedness, and b) the weakness of complacent strength which is self-sufficient pride.

The Enemy attacks come against us at both points of weakness.  The first kind of weakness is less serious in that we more readily acknowledge our need and cry or for help from God.  The second kind of weakness is far more serious and more devastating in its effect upon us so that it can be a more favored tactic of the Enemy. (SE 327)

Peter says the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. This is a similarly threatening image. Our enemy is like an army commander scoping out the weak defenses of our walled city. Some places, like the gates we open to the world every day are well-defended because we know about them. But there are weak sections of the wall, perhaps, that defend places we never expect to be attacked, or don’t want to imagine being attacked because we’ve been hurt there before, that are much more dangerous.

Opposition is real

For instance, Circle of Hope is a relational network. We count on people loving one another. We have 50 cell leaders entrusted with nurturing the process of micro-communities. So, naturally, we can get complacent about how everyone supposedly loves one another and can be “sitting ducks” in the gun sites of an enemy shooting conflict at us. We can be so committed to our harmony that we don’t allow healthy conflict, or don’t even allow needed change to occur if it might create conflict – even though we have a proverb that says, “Everyone is recovering from the sin addiction – expect conflict.”

On a more personal level, each of us might be very unaware of our childhood defense mechanisms and just consider them “normal,” or even “my right to be who I am,” or even, nowadays, “my genetic disposition that I can’t change even if I want to.” We could all use a little more Ignatian attention to self-sufficiency. The enemy would love us to be self-sufficient. It is antithetical to serving God.

Ignatian spirituality is not for the weakly committed. It takes a lot of time to ponder all the ways we could be growing stronger in faith and becoming stronger opponents to the enemies of God. I am encouraged to take the time, because much of the time I am not spending becoming aware of my temptations I am spending conforming to them.

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